Sacramento’s new rules are just a first step toward police reform

Kenyan Bliss joins a September protest of the killing of Joseph Mann by Sacramento police officers.
Kenyan Bliss joins a September protest of the killing of Joseph Mann by Sacramento police officers. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

In a perfect world, Joseph Mann’s death would have gotten a bolder answer than the police reforms passed in Sacramento this week.

The videotaped fate of the homeless, mentally ill man, who was shot 14 times for walking around with a knife in North Sacramento, cried out for a new approach to police abuse, one that would set a statewide or even a national standard.

Instead, hamstrung by local and state laws that over the years have made police accountability much too hard in California, the City Council had to settle for doing what it could around the margins, revamping civilian review, pushing for better training and slightly improving transparency in officer-involved killings.

The new measures aren’t nearly enough, and they satisfy no one. They should be regarded as a first step in a long road that might necessitate a charter change or state action.

But, just for the record, the new rules aren’t nothing, either. And the advocates, council members and city staffers who brought them to fruition deserve thanks.

The reforms, for example, will require police to emphasize de-escalation and other nonlethal tactics when confronting suspects – a skill that might have saved Mann’s life, had a couple of cowboy officers not barged onto the scene, guns blazing.

This week’s reforms should be the start of a longer conversation.

Police also will have to wear body cams, which tend to make interactions between officers and the public more transparent and civil. Dashcam video of police shootings will be made public after 30 days unless the department can prove it will compromise an investigation, and victims’ families will get a first look, which will shine a light on cases that too often get complicated by heartbreak and hearsay.

And the city’s toothless civilian review apparatus will finally get, if not a full set of teeth, at least a cuspid and a couple of molars. The Office of Public Safety Accountability will at last get some money and staffing, and will report to the City Council, not the city manager, who also oversees the Police Department. A new oversight commission, made up entirely of civilians, will get broader powers to review complaints filed with the accountability office.

And, though misconduct investigations still will be left to the department’s internal affairs people, the commission will be able to ask the council to subpoena information when needed. Whenever possible, the council should heed the commission’s advice.

Throw in a new mayor, a new police chief and a rebounding economy that might pay for more diverse hiring and community policing, and it adds up to potential for some real change.

That said, in trying to protect law enforcement officers, which is surely a reasonable impulse, California has overshot the mark and actually impeded trust between cops and civilians. Public access to records of police misconduct – a basic tool of accountability in other states – is almost entirely blocked here, so that taxpayers have virtually no idea whether a department is getting rid of its bad apples.

That needs to change, as does oversight. The U.S. Department of Justice under Donald Trump clearly won’t be the civil rights watchdog on police shootings that it was under President Barack Obama. That leaves true local review with investigatory authority, which appears to require a change in Sacramento’s city charter, or, as some states have done and Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty has suggested, independent review of all police shootings by the state Department of Justice.

Either way, this week’s imperfect reforms should be the start of a longer conversation. As Lanette Davies of the Sacramento ACLU office told the council, “having just the police look out for the police is not good enough.”